Words Matter: or How I Stopped Hating and Learned They're Doing The Best They Can

There’s an old Seinfeld bit, “People! They’re the worst!”

To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve even seen that episode but I hear Jerry’s voice every time I think it.

But I think it- and that’s the problem.

There was a time that it seemed funny to say something as absurd as “People! They’re the worst!” To lump all of humanity into one group and dismiss them is so ridiculous that it seemed harmless and funny. I may even have thought myself charming.

But here’s the problem: words matter. What we say, to ourselves, and to others, has an impact. It subtly changes the way we see the world, and over time those tiny changes become big shifts.

Someone cuts me off on the freeway? “People, they’re the worst!”

Someone jumps the line at the grocery store? “People are the worst.”

Someone parks in a handicapped space without a placard? “Ugh, people suck.”

Someone leaves a dog tied up in the sun without water? “I hate people.”

And the slide into negative talk and negative patterns deepens. The default position became “hating” people I didn’t even know. Did I mean it? No. Not really. But there was enough truth in it to poison me. I couldn’t walk around with the kind of kindness and charity that I wanted for others and that I certainly hoped others could hold for me!

One day it all changed.

I read a story about a young boy with autism having a meltdown on a public bus. His father was worried about his son, but also worried about what the other passengers on the bus must be thinking. After all, his boy wasn’t a baby; he might have looked like someone who could change his behavior to someone who didn’t know his condition. People on the bus began to stare and glare. The father became embarrassed and even angry at this son.

When the man in front of him turned around and asked calmly “Is he alright?” the father answered “he’s autistic.” The man said, “it’s alright” and smiled. In that moment, the father’s heart was changed and so was mine.

I have family, friends and children of friends on the spectrum. It’s so easy for me to take them where they are and know they’re doing the best that they can. It’s so easy to love them for who they are not who I wish they were, even under challenging circumstances. I realized I wasn’t giving others the same benefit of the doubt.

When we understand the limitations someone is working with it is easy to say “they’re doing the best that they can.” That boy was at the end of his ability to manage the input coming his way and he was coping the only way he could. When we understand that, we feel charity and grace.

When a baby cries on descent in a plane, we know the poor child doesn’t know yet how to equalize her ears. She’s doing the best she can. We feel compassion for her pain.

When the driver gets out of his car with canes, we do not begrudge him the handicapped parking spot, we are glad it is there for him, after all- that is who needs it.

But with my casual joke “People! They’re the worst!” I had hidden away all my charity. I had made a practice of assuming I knew what was right and what was wrong.

This year I’ve challenged myself to replace that thought.

It comes, unbidden, out of habit. But now when it does, I notice. And when I notice, I say to myself: “She’s doing the best that she can.” It’s not always easy, but it’s getting easier each time. And each time it is a gift to myself. I get to have the sweetness of compassion. I get to feel the relief of unconditional love. I get to let go of my anger and frustration.

It is a totally selfish act. I get to be happier every day by having more kindness and compassion for others.

Am I changing the whole world? No, but is my life a little more peaceful and a little sweeter every day? Yes. Maybe someday I won’t have to replace the thought. Maybe someday it will be the first thought on my mind. I hope so, it certainly seems to be changing.

Actively practicing compassion for others is a gift we get to give ourselves. Do you have a practice that helps you show love and compassion? I’d love to hear about it.

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